By Chris Maza
LONGMEADOW – Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of a fee-based full-day kindergarten.
While through the 2013-14 school year full-day kindergarten was only available at a fee of $4,100 through a lottery system, the School Committee recently approved a recommendation from its finance and kindergarten subcommittees to open full-day kindergarten to the public at a cost of $3,000 a year.
A group of parents, Residents for Equality for Kindergarten Education in Longmeadow, however, is opposed to this move, largely due to concerns regarding equity of services for students from families who do not wish to or cannot afford to pay the fee.
“It really becomes an ethical issue – an equality issue – when your school department is sending out a letter to parents saying that they strongly recommend the full-day program and when your superintendent has spoken about the disparity she expects to see in children at the end of kindergarten between the children in full-day and half-day kindergarten, but then they say, ‘If you want the better program, you’re going to have to pay $3,000. This is public school; this is not private school,” Stephanie Jasmin, resident and founder of the group told Reminder Publications.
“Superintendent [Marie Doyle] has spoken specifically about the academic disparity that she expects between the half-day kindergarten children and the full-day kindergarten children,” she continued, explaining that with the implementation of the Common Core Standards, students in a half-day program would be at a disadvantage.
At a Jan. 8 Longmeadow Parent Teacher Association meeting Doyle said, “We’ll have to see what happens in first grade and the differences in students arriving to first grade. I think there will be pretty observable differences when these two programs are done.” She added that if parents who opt for the half-day program supplement their child’s learning at home, specifically in reading, it would help and the district could provide materials to aid them.
On Feb. 10 during the school budget public forum, Doyle said it was not the district’s intention to create a system of “haves and have-nots” and the district would work with those in need. She also said half-day kindergarten teachers would be required to craft a curriculum that covers all Common Core requirements, but repetition would not be possible and binders would be available for parents interested in performing repetition exercises at home.
Jasmin said she and others find this to be an unacceptable approach to educating students in the district.
“When they’re making statements about the half-day program being inadequate, things change where the full-day program needs to be funded just like every other grade is,” Jasmin said. “It’s not OK to recognize the disparity and then say that a child can only get the program that the district highly [and] strongly recommends if the parents are able to pay $3,000.”
In addition to her group’s work, Jasmin said the general public also agrees with the idea of a free full-day program.
“A survey was given out – I believe 340 people filled it out – and overwhelmingly they stated they wanted full-day kindergarten to be free,” she said. “It’s not just a small group. The residents have spoken, but our school committee, which is comprised of seven people, made the decision to not fund it.”
The district put out the survey Jasmin referenced during its research into implementing widespread full-day kindergarten programs.
At a November 2013 public forum discussing the options for a program, Doyle said the results showed that more than 60 percent of respondents strongly supported a change to a full-day program, while approximately 20 percent opposed such a move. However, more than 50 percent of the survey participants were opposed to paying $2,500 in order to place their children in full-day kindergarten. Doyle said the district “heard that loudly and clearly.”
Michael Clark, School Committee chair, pointed out at the Feb. 10 hearing that Longmeadow is one of the few districts in the Commonwealth that does not receive state or federal funding for full-day kindergarten and some of those that do get aid still charge for their full-day programs. He added that the $3,000 was less than the average of every district in the state that charges for kindergarten, including those receiving federal money.
When asked in a subsequent conversation by Reminder Publications to expand on the reasoning behind the $3,000 fee, Clark referred questions specifically regarding finance to Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Thomas Mazza.
“Tom Mazza came up with the number after looking at the cost of the program versus the number of students,” Clark said. “A lot of thought was put into developing this number. Nobody wants to charge for kindergarten, but this is what we need to do to essentially break even.”
Mazza explained that in developing a tuition figure, the district, utilizing the pre-enrollment survey and other information, determined the costs to run seven full-day sections with an average class size of 18 students, or 126 students
“We sat down and took a projection of the enrollment and then estimated the costs of staffing those seven full-day sections,” he said. “We essentially split that number in half to calculate what would come out of the general fund – because we’re required to offer at least half-day kindergarten – and the kindergarten fund, which would contain the tuition collected to be distributed where it needs to be to run the program.”
Mazza also noted that some students with individualized education program, also known as an IEP, due to a disability or learning disorder could receive full-day kindergarten free of charge, as mandated by state law.
On Feb. 25, the district also announced it was adopting the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s sliding scale for families in need of assistance with tuition. The School Committee will vote on recommended discounts at its March 10 meeting.
Those in need of the subsidy can fill out an application found on the district’s website at http://sites.longmeadow.k12.ma.us/www/news/fulldaykindergartenslidingscale.
Questions can be forwarded to Doyle (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Mazza (email@example.com).
In an effort to gain further support Jasmin said she reached out to Gov. Deval Patrick’s office, which put her in contact with the office of state Rep Alice Hanlon Piesch, House chair of the Joint Committee on Education, from which a representative said they would look into the issue. Jasmin said she has also reached out to state Sen. Gale Candaras.
James Warren from Candaras’ office confirmed that she had spoken with parents. Piesch’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Jasmin said those interested in contacting her may email at firstname.lastname@example.org
or by visiting the group’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/residentsforequalityinkindergarteneducation
Doyle was not available for comment when Reminder Publications contacted her office, as she was at a conference.